The following is a free translation of the article entitled L'Aga Khan et Salima: Une belle histoire s'achève which appeared in the October 20, 1994 edition of Paris Match, pp. 82-87. The article was written by Caroline Pigozzi.
Behind the smile of Karim Aga Khan, accompanied by his daughter
princess Zahra, on the eve of the grand prix of the Arc de triomphe
at Longchamp, one would not imagine that two days later, the union
of the 49th descendant of Prophet Mohammed and the Begum would
suddenly and sadly come to an end. His Royal Highness brutally
initiated divorce proceedings. After having suffered from the
noisy disorder of his father Aly's life, Karim preferred to wait
for his children Hussain, Rahim and Zahra to reach adulthood before
taking this heavy decision at age 57.
In October, 1969, Karim (meaning "the Generous" in Arabic)
married Salima ("the Peace") at the town hall of the
forth subdivision of Paris. The ex-model Sally Croker-Poole had
converted to Islam. The wedding would be celebrated in the grand
hall of the "hotel particulier des Ursins" at Ile de
la Cité. Karim, 49th Imam of the Ismailis, was the direct
successor of his grandfather, Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III. Spiritual
leader of fifteen million people, he is at the head of an immense
It was Monday, October 3. I found myself at Chantilly, at the Aga Khan's place for a meeting which was set up at a much earlier date to update the final details of a story in Pakistan, when the news which had been kept quiet for months suddenly came out. It did not upset the calm of Aiglemont, located at the edge of the forest where, once in a while, you can hear the rhythm of the hoofbeats of the purebreds being trained. A simple press-release. A spokesperson for the Aga Khan announced that His Highness had told his Swiss lawyers, on September 30, 1994, to initiate proceedings to divorce his wife the Begum.
Karim Aga Khan had evidently not told me this. One can only wait for a public announcement from a person of such caliber who has placed discretion at the foremost of his priorities. The inheritor of a Shia branch of Islam, the forty-ninth descendant of the Prophet Mohammed is the respected Imam and spiritual leader of the Ismailis, fifteen million believers from twenty or so countries, from India to Pakistan, Tadjikistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
In contrast with his grandfather, who married four times, and his father Ali, who died in 1960 and was known as a "grand seducer" who married the most beautiful and celebrated actress in Hollywood, Rita Hayworth when she was at the height of her fame, he (Karim) doesn't limit himself to managing the resources of his community, but also increases them.
This man who speaks four languages does not like being talked about, even if this time he's made the news of his unsuccessful marriage public. Very British in his comportment and with a charming voice, he has a warmth about him, a subtle alchemy of seduction, seriousness and reserve which creates the delicious impression of his exclusive attention.
Thus ended the last of the weddings of the Thousand and One Nights, which had been celebrated on October 21, 1969 in His Highness' particular hotel at rue des Ursins on a foundation of incensed perfume of roses, orchids and under a rain of fine pearls thrown as though they were rice grains at the feet of the newlywed couple to cast good luck and prosperity on them. The head of the Grand Mosque of Paris had baptized Sarah who had converted to Islam and became Salima, clothed in a heavy white silk sari bordered with golden thread, and Karim wearing a cream colored suit with officer's collars. The former minister Olivier Guichard who represented General de Gaulle remembers: "This marvelous oriental wedding was a unique spectacle at the shadows of the towers of Notre-Dame. A cocktail of women in kaftans covered with precious stones, from elegant Englishwomen in sweetened perfumes, to the Princess Margaret, to the Lady Soames, daughter of Winston Churchill and wife to the ambassador of Great Britain, from high international dignitaries, from maharajas in turbans and other gentlemen from the races. At the invitation of the new couple, eight-hundred people were gathered that evening at Ile de la Cité in the high class patios and lounges of the residence of the Aga, built in the 13th century. Some buffets offered champagne and whiskey for the French and European guests, others reserved for Muslims offered puches, soft drinks and fruit juices." All the perfumes of the orient flowed that night on Lutèce.
If, in 1969, the Aga Khan and the new Begum were united according to the rites of the Quran, this ceremony never took on a religious character for the Muslims. It suffices that one of the two spouses denounce what is a simple marriage contract to recover their freedom. So why then did the Aga Khan decide, suddenly after so many years, to finally divorce? He, who recommends monogamy to the Ismailis without always being able to impose it upon them because in principle they respect the laws of the countries in which they live led me to believe that his constant pressure caused him to slowly separate from Salima, but that he had decided to wait for his youngest child to reach adulthood before rectifying this situation.
In this very particular case, it is not a question of tearing
oneself to protect inheritors. The princess Zahra, brilliant,
graduated last June in the economics of developing nations from
Harvard University is 24 years old; Prince Rahim, actually studying
comparative literature at Brown in the United States, is 23 years
old; Hussain, the youngest who is taking courses at William's
College in the United States, is 20 years old. It is a question
of determining the amount of the (fabulous) sum that the Begum
will receive. Fantastically large numbers have been suggested,
but conforming to the education he received, Karim never speaks
of money. What seems certain is that he will have to abandon many
millions of dollars and offer her a residence that is fitting
of her current status.
In fact, the property in which the princess has lived for several years, at the doors of Geneva, is rented to Ms. Firminich, a rich Genevan who has an imperative desire to get her house back. In her unhappiness, the very distinguished and elegant Salima accumulated even more grief from being separated from her jewels which were, for the most part, personal gifts. Her title, generally given to the spouses of important people, is one of pure courtesy in the Indian and Islamic worlds. It is this way for example that we call Benazir Bhutto "the Begum Bhutto". The Khans have been princes for a long time, they were raised to the rank of Royal Highnesses by the Queen of England in 1957, then by the Shah of Iran two years later.
The announcement by the Aiglemont's spokesperson was not at all surprising to those who were close to the couple. In fact, for several years already, they were hardly seen together. At the beginning of their marriage, the children lived at Chantilly and frequented the famous Hattemer race track on a weekly basis. Later on, the young princes would be sent to Rosey, in Rolle, for schooling. Like their father, who was once a student at this institution of high international reputation, where the Shah of Iran and the Kings Juan Carlos of Spain and Hussein of Jordan also studied. Their mother moved therefore to Switzerland to be closer to her children. Preserved from the outside world and rarely going out, she received her tailors and her hair stylist just like when she lived in Paris or Aiglemont. This woman, tired of her international life had to submit to the rules of Islam. An existence that kept her separated from her husband who stayed at Chantilly in his 70 hectare property with hundred year old oak trees, an English style lawn and the impeccable little hedges that separate the hundred or so horses. From there the Imam directs his development network which employs 16,000 people world-wide and channels 110 million dollars annually to projects in Africa and Asia requiring a half-dozen philanthropic missions every year to countries where his faithful reside. The budget is made up of three components which are at the root of his community: The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development; the Aga Khan Foundation, which subsidizes a variety of education and health programs; and the Aga Khan Trust, covering cultural preservation activities. Added to this are his personal affairs, since he manages his personal hereditary fortune separately. After having recently sold is majority position in the Ciga hotel line, he still holds the Costa Smeralda recreation complex in Sardinia which he founded in the 60's, and which, like his airline Meridiana, is part of his personal financial holding, the Fimpar. And to this is added his "rentable" passion as he describes it, for racing, that is to say, 190 horses, two-thirds bread and trained in France, and the remaining in Ireland. A good hundred or so people work on the Aiglemont grounds in the administration of the Imamat, in which he is assisted by his brother Amyn who takes care of the hotel investments. His Highness's personal attachés number around ten and include gardeners, chefs, security personnel and stable keepers. He has also built a self-serve restaurant on the grounds for the employees where good food is served. Alas, this existence became more and more difficult to conciliate with the lifestyle of a serene couple. "His Highness" as his entourage respectively calls him, never sleeps more than five hours per night. He rarely leaves his office before 9 or even 10pm. It is only afterwards that he can attend to his private life. He drives his Audi - the prince does not share his father's passion for race cars - to drive to Le Bourget or to his Gulfstream, a twelve-seat private jet, and his Bell helicopter, both white and adorned with the prince's personal standard, and both on continuos stand-by to fly at any time to London, Geneva, Nairobi or simply Longchamp. A maniac of the fax and the telephone, he keeps his close staff and advisers under constant pressure. Sometimes at dawn he arrives with his Samoyède Shayoon - in best of circumstances - to watch a yearling being taken out for a run, or a filly being taken for training. He works there for a few hours before traveling across the little alleyways to return to his offices. Across from his vast Ile-de-France style countryhouse that was built in 1978, he has had a grand structure erected which includes a beige marble hall, rusty colored leather sofas and modern, functional furniture, where a personnel from seventeen different nationalities pass through.
Amidst the actual disorder in his life, the Aga Khan is not totally distressed. Recently his life has been endowed with a new joy: his daughter Zahra, a brilliant Harvard graduate, has come to work at Aiglemont, to put her newly acquired knowledge to the service of the community by working on the insertion of under-developed countries in the modern world. The father and daughter occupy neighboring offices, where Zahra's kitten Caramel skids uncontrollably across the impeccably polished marble. An "aristocat" now rules over the royal house!